The music and the majesty of the late, great Hannibal

Across three seasons, Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal became a critical success and developed a rabid cult following as it weaved a narrative of the darkest forms of romance, seduction, cruelty, and terrified beauty that nothing on network TV had ever come close to offering before. Adapted from the Thomas Harris novels that inspired such films as the 1991 classic The Silence of the Lambs and the not-so-classic 2002 Red Dragon, the series reimagined the gritty and, at times, virtuosic literature found within the crime novels and reassembled the shards of glass into something somehow far more sinister by being far more irresistible – murder was made to look like high art as blood seemed to substitute for paint and bodies served as pieces of grandiose installations set on mirroring the eye of God or offering a valentine-cum-apology.

Death, love, mental illness, power, isolation, terror and empathy – all of these things unified Fuller’s adaptation into what seemed at times indistinct from a dark dream or a beautiful nightmare; there was always a sense of a somehow mercurial, altered and foggy reality that made it possible for anything to happen – mythical Native American monsters, ravenstags and William Blake’s Great Red Dragon paintings all were able to weave in and out of scenes and the line between what existed in the heads of characters and what was present in their realities seemed to not only thin, but, in time to become irrelevant – the things we see affect us and the things that hurt us scar us, tangible or not.

Hannibal was a series with ambition like no other, and it succeeded near-flawlessly. Everyone involved seemed to be firing on all cylinders creatively – take a look at stills from almost any episode and you will find imagery as haunting as a Francis Bacon and as enrapturing as a van Gogh painting – cinematography shifted and twirled at a level typically reserved for arthouse obscura, and with the lavish costuming and set designs, it was easy to mistake sequences as the work of some cinematic auteur more comparable to Nicolas Winding Refn or David Lynch than anything ever assembled for weeknight TV.

Veteran showrunner Bryan Fuller seemed to turn in the finest scripts of his remarkable career, openly embracing the “purple prose” found in Harris’ writing to great success, and every actor, from leads Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen to supporting and guest performers such as the deceptively-lovely Gillian Anderson and the theatrically-brilliant Michael Pitt, gave dramatic turns that, in a just world, would have all garnered Emmy recognition. Every light seemed meticulously chosen and placed; every shot painstakingly conceived and blocked; every narrative arc, flourish and denouement seemed purposeful and poetic.

Brian Reitzell
Composer Brian Reitzell

But among all of the creative highs and peaks that the cast and crew reached during the series, the story of Will Graham’s seduction into and consumption by the world of Hannibal Lecter seemed to be communicated powerfully and eloquently through the music crafted by Brian Reitzell, an underappreciated and incredible talent that sonically brought the audience through the same murky, nightmarishly-beautiful crime scenes, abandoned estates and lavish dining rooms that Will Graham glided through, often stumbling and frequently questioning the integrity of what was around him before giving in, a feeling simulated by the constantly confrontational and bizarre music setting the scenes.

Brian Reitzell’s work on Hannibal felt defining. After a respectable career as a working film composer, his work on Hannibal seems like an ascendant set of accomplishments – the things he’d done before were far from bad, but no project seemed to lend itself to the experimental sound factory that the series would give him room to work in. Asian instruments clash with startling drum rolls and classical compositions. Opera singer’s voices are scratched against bent steel and howling synths that seem closer to wind, just before some terrible storm rips through the landscape, or some church ceiling collapses to create a headline Dr Lecter surely would collect. Obscure children’s toys and hundreds of instruments were treated with equal respect as ways to find the sounds needed.

It resulted in something visionary, complete and encapsulating, and, like all other elements of the series, inseparable from the narrative it accompanied. The visuals and audio seem symbiotic when viewed together as intensifying imagery led the way for complex and overwhelming musical arrangements. Reitzell touted in one interview that he would frequently max out the 256-track limit in recording software Pro Tools while composing, and it shows – layer upon layer upon layer of sound intertwines, compositions growing from simple synths or harpsicord strings into colossal and overpowering blasts of dissociative sound.

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Yet these monolithic pieces never seem overstuffed – the moments where it seems like too much is going on, it’s supposed to – as characters’ mental states deteriorate, or their emotions become overwhelmed, panic attacks had, the music drags the viewer’s mind into the well with them, only releasing when the imagery accompanying does so. Few scenes exist in the series where some musical accompaniment isn’t present, and yet it’s often unnoticed unless your ears are searching for it – it seems completely organic, melded into the imagery and diegetic sounds of any given sequence perfectly. It’s low when it should be; it’s haunting as-needed; it’s horrifying at will.

Rather than dive towards horror-soundtrack-clichés, Reitzell crafted unusual and unsettling combinations of classical compositions and obscure, odd sounds, samples and instruments most people wouldn’t know the name of, let alone the sound; weaving beautiful and haunting compositions into intense and alarming sound collages, Reitzell created a score that resulted in a diversity allowing for unique and striking differences between settings, characters and themes without ever feeling inconsistent or out of style. Nothing felt off-limits.

Exotic drums and frantic samplings accompany the malicious mania of Mason Verger. Gothic, sombre and operatic themes follow Dr Hannibal Lecter with every walk, a tone of withdrawn and lonely darkness always radiating from the soundstage as chamber music and almost-gorgeous pieces of classical symphonies get lost in the fog of water-filled basements where no beams of light dare to penetrate, a regular sense that something lurks just beneath the surface, waiting not to emerge but to pull you down with it, much in the same way that Hannibal pulls Will down into the darkness with him. Sounds that seem stolen from the annals of clinical, indifferent mental hospitals and frantic EKG machines blend with almost-innocent, reflective compositions to both illuminate and haunt the psyche of Will Graham.

Will Graham
The tortured Will Graham, as played by Hugh Dancy

No character seems to exist without a unique set of sounds that follow them; the more psychologically fractured, the more sonically scattered they seem to become, with the final set of episodes in the first season descending and exploding into a sense of frantic, frenzied hospital sounds and otherworldly noise as Will Graham endures a mental breakdown as his brain is ravaged by encephalitis and a prolonged game of psychological torture and manipulation seems to come to a close.

The blurred silhouette of a Wendigo waits at the end of a decayed dinner table. A stag’s hot-air-ejecting snout seems to permanently track the nape of Will Graham’s neck. Medical documents are destroyed or tampered with. Doctors can’t be trusted. Time slips away completely. You stand in a house one moment and in ankle-deep snow amidst midnight woods the next. Disorientation and distortion of reality become narrative constants, and Reitzell’s music – frequently disconcerting, shifting into new and strange territories the moment any comfort or sense of solid sonic ground is reached and always prepared to spin off into some fresh direction at any given moment – makes it impossible to not get wrapped up in it.

The entire series is steeped in subconscious imagery, and the least-realistic moments are often accentuated or bolstered by the most psychologically intense soundtrack cues and musical explosions. Strings in a blender snap out at the ears of the audience as fantastical, surreal imagery fills the screen. Instruments seem to fall down stairs and crash together at the bottom; pianos seem to be played incorrectly just to throw the nervous system off entirely. Throughout the series, Will Graham and all supporting characters are pulled further into the realm that Hannibal Lecter inhabits, his memory palace seeming to leak into the physical world. A lifetime of hiding comes to a conclusion as the three seasons barrel ahead, the smokescreen behind which almost everyone hides at some point or another clearing completely by the final shots, and Reitzell’s music – rather than creating a sense of artificiality to it all through generic, typical television scoring – manages to punctuate all of it.

It brings the viewer into a trance, making every second their own nightmarish dream, and allowing the fictional world of Hannibal to not really exist in either fantasy or reality – it finds its space in some strange territory between the two, where maybe neither are any different, and everything seen, felt and experienced counts. Operatic sprays of blood from someone’s throat – closer to theatrical ribbon than anything truly arterial – seem to count for just as much as visions of vacant, washed-out backgrounds where Hannibal and Will’s bodies quite literally meld, their faces and heads seeming to appear out of ink-blot imagery, their minds becoming inseparable the closer they become. Part of why we obsess over music is that it can take us to another world, and Brian Reitzell’s brought us into Hannibal’s, just as Will Graham and anyone else unfortunate enough to step into Dr Lecter’s field of vision were.

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It’s an impressive and major scale upon which Hannibal manages to erase the lines between narrative and artistic imagery, and Brian Reitzell’s score makes all of it emotionally satisfying, speaking to some primal center of the brain that often only music can. There is a constant sense of some beautiful, wonderful, enchanting space that once existed now corrupt, a place your eyes aren’t supposed to see, that your feet aren’t supposed to touch, that your ears shouldn’t hear – and yet you cannot help yourself but be drawn in. If Lewis Carrol had nightmares, the visual-audial landscape of Hannibal might have resembled them.

The music is layered, textured and seems to operate from a place of constantly deliberate and carefully-chosen mayhem. Clocks wind and tick ceaselessly as the time runs out during the season two finale “Mizumono”. Legions of flutes, all in different keys, swirl together to create a sound closer to bees than anything anyone in an orchestra might play. Drums pulsate and beat, sounding more tribal than orchestrated, every layer seeming to suggest some unseen player just in the darkened distance. The nature of which the sounds come from constantly seems to threaten that there are faces behind them, people constructing every note that at any second might force you to face them. It sonically simulates the emotions Will Graham and almost all of the supporting cast experience as the carefully-designed and brutal crime scenes progress, with every grotesquely-beautiful setting a promise of someone responsible that they will all have to see at some point.

For a show all about the seductive nature of evil and the encapsulating nature of darkness – one character delivers a beautifully painful monologue on feeling as though black fluid encases her entire body every night after being close to Hannibal, and the last we see of Graham and Lecter is the both of them falling into darkened waters, their arms and bodies intertwined just as much as their minds and hearts, their fates now inseparable in a toxic relationship that Will can only refer to as “beautiful” – Reitzell’s music illustrated those feelings flawlessly. Hannibal was a show built around the part of our minds that, when we see something horrible, just cannot manage to look away, and what it is that part of us might find in those images, and the music offered exactly the same feeling – it was often too-terrifying, or too-crestfallen, or too-menacing, and yet when it’s playing, it’s all your ears could ever want to hear. Why not have just one more meal? Why not hear just one more note?

If Hannibal is all about being seduced into darkness and embracing the madness, then no one could have crafted a finer, more fitting score than Brian Reitzell did. If old friends ever meet for dinner again, and if the nightmarish fairytale dreamscape of Hannibal is given another place at the table to live on in the future (series creator Bryan Fuller and both leading men certainly seem hopeful that it will), the meal just won’t taste the same if Reitzell isn’t involved in the preparation.